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Wednesday, July 29th 2015

19:24

The Flora of the Prairie

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: good

Little Mo Nature TrailContinuing my report on our travel in North Dakota. I.T. suggested exploring the medicinal uses of prairie plants.  I thought that this was a good idea, but had no clue as to where to start. Fortunately, the nature trail in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park provided a pamphlet, explaining various items items as indicated on little numbered posts. It didn't get very detailed with regard to the plants, but was quite helpful. So, let me just give you a little description of some of the flora encountered there. I’ll provide some of my pictures and quote directly from the guide to the trail, as issued by the National Park Service. Also, of course, I'll  make a few of my own comments, as I see them as either necessary or clever. Note: Some of the plants weren’t where they were supposed to be, and, consequently, I've used pictures from other places on the trip. If you see that something is clearly wrong, please let me know.

1. (Station 3): Skunkbush Sumac. Not a very enticing name.

“Generations of observation and trial taught the Plains Indians the value of native plants for food, medicine, and raw material. The tart red berries of the Skunkbush Sumac (Rhus aromatica) were steeped in hot water to make a drink similar to lemonade. Note the leaves growing in groups of threes. This sumac is closely related to poison ivy, but it is not poisonous.”

Skunkbush Sumac

Poison IvyTwo comments:

1. Nevertheless, unless you’re really sure, please stick to the old adage: Leaves of three, let it be.

2. The description notwithstanding, I doubt that a Skunkbush drink stand will ever replace the tried and true lemonade stand.  

 

2. (Station 5) Wolfberry.

“Wolfberry or buckbrush (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) is found throughout the Great Plains. The Plains Indians steeped the leaves in water and made a mixture to treat inflammation of the eyes. The berries remain on the plant through the long winter and serve as food for wintering birds.”

Wolfberry

3. (Station 6) Missouri Willow (Salix missouriensis).

“The inner bark of willow contains an effective pain killing chemical, the same chemical found in today’s aspirin. Scientists are learning that plants used in folk remedies frequently contain chemicals that are effective in treating specific ailments.”

The chemical in question is, of course, salicylic acid. I remember concocting it in lab when I was taking Organic Chemistry.

Missouri Willow

4. (Station 12) Silver Sagebrush.

“This silvery green-leaved shrub is silver sage (Artemisia cana), one of several species of sagebrush found in the park. American Indians used its aromatic leaves (brush fingers against plant and smell) as an incense during religious ceremonies, as a fragrance for bath water, and as a seasoning when cooking meat.”

Silver Sage Bush

5. (Station 18) Prickly Pear Cactus.

“The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha) stores water in its fleshy stems (the large green pads) and can withstand long droughts. Its leaves have been reduced to spines as a further aid in preserving moisture, as well as to protect the plant. The thick, sticky juice found in the stems was used by American Indians to stabilize colors painted on hides. The cactus blooms from mid-June through July.”

Prickly Pear Cactus

6. (Station 21) Rocky Mountain Juniper.

“The small blue berries of the rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) grow only on the female tree and are an important source of food for wintering birds. Plains Indians frequently used juniper for medicinal purposes, often inhaling the smoke of smoldering branches to clear blocked sinuses. Today, juniper berries are used in homemade rootbeer as well as to flavor alcoholic beverages, particularly gin.”

Rocky Mountain Juniper

7. (Station 22) Cottonwood Trees.

“Plains Indians and settlers depended upon the cottonwood (Populus deltoidis), a short-lived, fast-growing tree, as a source of fuel, shade and building materials. During severe winters the thick cottonwood bark was fed to horses. This water-loving tree ‘drinks’ up to 50 gallons of water a day and is easily recognized by the distinctive sound of its rustling leaves.”

Cottonwood Tree

8. (Station 23) Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea).

“The red berries of this common North Dakota shrub provide winter food for wildlife. The fruit is used today, as in the past, as a source of food and jam. The northern shrike, a small rodent-and-insect-eating bird, impales its prey on the shrub’s sharp thorns.”

Buffaloberry

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Friday, July 24th 2015

23:01

Meanwhile Back in North Dakota

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: good

Golden Oriole

Predictably, I fell into my same old pattern again. Having launched two entries of the slightly newly formatted blog, my plans for the third entry were too ambitious to finish the night I started it, and so the whole blog got stalled again. Thus, below is a slimmed down and edited version of what I wrote that evening, which would have been Monday, July 13, 2015.

The fun goes on. Saturday was a catching-up-with-ourselves day. I went to the pool several times to swim and enjoy the water slide, and practiced some songs. June and I took in some of the immediate area, but did not go into the wilderness in search of adventures.

For Sunday I was able to get a place on a two-hour horseback ride through the park (or, if I have to be precise, the area right next to the official boundaries of the park). As it turned out, it was the only chance at riding a horse I would get because all other time slots throughout the week were already filled. Needless to say, I loved it. It’s not entirely fair to draw a comparison between the advantages of seeing the world from the seat of a bicycle or the saddle of a horse, but a horse can go where a bike cannot, and one does not have to worry about headwinds. The latter constitutes one of the memorable impediments of biking through the Dakotas on the Wandering Wheels Circle America trip of 1985.

Junipers

I mentioned in a blog entry of last year that the horse I rode in Brown County was named Whiskey. At the end of May of this year (when the blog was taking a nap) we went back there again, and I took the long trail ride every day for five days, four of those days on Whiskey, each time bringing up the back. (On the first day I rode a different horse, and it was just the trail guide and me, which was a really good experience for learning to ride properly.) So, when it came to lining up the riders here on Sunday, I mentioned that I liked to be last in line and got my wish. It turned out that the name of the stallion that I rode was Tequila. Looks like I’m going from one drink to another. Sorry, no pictures of me riding beyond the one from last year. I might mention that, I’ve not needed any help getting into the saddle this year, possibly because I know more of what I’m doing, abetted by the fact that I’m continuing to lose weight( not that I need to).

Beaver Works

 

Win with cameraThe last mentioned reality leads smoothly into the next topic, which includes the purchase of a new belt. After indulging in my Karl May fantasies riding through the prairie, June and I had lunch in the colorful tourist-oriented little town of Medora and then visited a number of gift shops. She got some little carvings of horses and Bison, and despite my not entirely sincere protestations, had me purchase a new Western-style shirt, the one that I wore for my impromptu Sunday night StreetJelly.com set of you happened to catch it. I also got the aforementioned new belt because the one I was wearing was running out of space to drill holes to the right, I had already added two of my own at previous times. I picked the absolutely most conservative Western belt they had for sale, not being interested in silver studs and oversized buckles. While I’m mentioning Medora, I need to give their ice cream store a big plug for selling a superior product in quite generous portions. Very likely we’ll give them more business as long as we are in the area. [We did.]

A word of advice to anyone biking, hiking, or riding in the Western desert or grass lands. Plan on taking a large amount of water. When you think that you probably have enough, double the amount.

 

Today we drove out to the northern unit of T. Roosevelt National Park. I think the fact that I took 231 pictures is an indication of what an experience it was. June, who’s been having real trouble with walking, set herself up in a safe location and sent me out for a little hike with strict orders to have fun. The path I took was a nature trail with little numbered posts at various locations of interest. It was called the “Little Mo Nature Trail,” where “Mo” stands for “Missouri.” It crossed the Squaw Creek, which empties into the Little Missouri River, which is one of the headwaters of what eventually becomes the big Missouri. A free paper guide with explanations was available at the head of this short 1.1 mile loop. It took me about an hour and a half to complete it, not because I was walking slowly, but because I explored, learned, and took pictures all along the way. One of the highlights was stalking a lone bison trudging along in my vicinity at one point. I took all necessary precautions, of course. Then later on, we saw him (at least I think it was the same one), from an overlook. He was still moving, but took a break to roll in the dust a bit before carrying on.

Bison on the Move

Coming up soon: What I learned about some plants along the way.

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Saturday, July 11th 2015

13:04

Bisons, Wild Horses, and more

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Excited

With reference to yesterday (Thursday):

What an awesome the day! We drove around the loop of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Southern Segment), stopping every few minutes and keeping track of a number of areas that we want to come back to. I think I can let the pictures speak for themselves—except maybe to tell you that the horses are really wild and free-roaming. And perhaps that the American bison should not be confused with other artiodactyls in the greater buffalo family. (I'm wearing my "I majored in zoology t-shirt.") Ah, yeah, you undoubtedly knew already that the little mammals are prairie dogs. Okay, I might just mention that the bird whose tail feathers shimmer in so many beautiful colors is a Western magpie. Finally, just to cover the subject completely, the scenery consisted of rocks and vegetation of various colors.

 

bisons

prairie dog

magpie

scenery

wild horses

bison

prairie dog

wild horses

magpie

scenery

June was taking pictures with her Canon camera. It's not an SLR, but it has a view finder and an incredible zoom. Her pictures are every bit as good as mine.

We met some interesting people along the way. First, there was the girl outside of Walmart sitting against the wall, strumming a banjo, taking a break occasionally to take some drags of a cigarette. The instrument boasted several stickers, right on the drum. The most prominent one declared "Beer!" She was obviously busking. I chatted with her a bit, told her of StreetJelly for rainy days, though I'm not sure she would have access to a computer. I asked her to do something upbeat, and she went through several verses of "Halleluyah, I'm a Bum."

I met another lady, at the first group of bisons. The big shaggy bovines were quite a distance away, and, in order to get the pictures I circled around a bit, getting a little closer very carefully. As I was trudging back, our paths crossed. She remarked that I must have gotten some good pictures because of my camera telephoto lens and my "bravery." I thanked her for the compliment, but clarified that there was no bravery since I made sure that I had the wind against me and the sun in my back, not to mention that I tried to keep some kind of brush work between me and the animals. The way she talked to her son made it obvious that she was not your average tourist admiring the size of the big cows. She made me think of Marie in Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (viz. the book, not the movie version of a few years ago, which totally took the meaning out of the original plot) insofar as she was a red-headed Canadian professor in the area of a conference, taking her son around the area as long as she was here. Well, actually at present she is in the legislature of Manitoba. She previously taught "Native American Studies," and I'll leave it at that since I don't know that she wants details of her life spread around. We had a good conversation. Much later in the evening, June and I were at the indoor pool and jacuzzi of this hotel, and, given the fact that we are in an area where the hotels and motels just tumble over each other, it was quite a surprise that she happened to be here as well. So June and I chatted with her some more.

Our 2004 Dakota

Also, there was a couple, about June's and my age. We were standing at the one of the overlooks, and they were very friendly as they said hello. I was really overcome by the scenery, and, since they seemed to be friendly, I let my excitement spill over with the statement that of the wonder that God not only created the world, but that he created it with beauty as well as give us the capacity to experience that beauty. Both of them assented, and then the gentlemen added that right now he wanted to see some wild horses. I mentioned that, given our experience of fourteen years ago, they would be a little further along the loop, and that it would probably take some patience to see them. He agreed, and both of us went on in our respective vehicles. June and I were a bit in front of them, when we saw our first wild horses, right by the road. As I climbed out to take pictures, I laughed across to him words to the effect of "No sooner asked for than delivered." He responded with a rougher grumpy "yeah." Maybe he was just tired or preoccupied, but he acted as though he were simply checking off animals on a mental list. Regardless, I hope his pictures turn out well, and that, in case he has problems seeing the Creator behind the creation, the fact of that relationship may eventually occur to him.

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Friday, July 10th 2015

21:07

Another run at it ...

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: On the Road Again

So, the tenth anniversary of the blog rolled around a few days ago without entry or fanfare. Still, I’m not ready to give it up yet. Maybe if I can go back to the way it started with relatively short, diary-like entries. Hope you like the switch in colors.

True to form, this is the second time that I’m writing this entry. Last night I tried to take the easy method and write it on-line on the WYSIWYG form provided by Bravenet, and, of course, somehow lost it all right before being ready to post it. I always should write it out off-line first so that it doesn’t disappear forever just because I accidentally hit the wrong key.

June and I are now in North Dakota, letting our minds enjoy an environment that is drastically different from Indiana. Since I limit myself to 400 miles of driving per day, it took us three days to get here, and for a while I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. The only way to get here without adding 200 miles is to cut through Chicago, and that means a lot of time spent sitting in massive traffic jams. Most of the Ryan and Kennedy Expressways—come to think of it, most of the highway in Illinois right up to Rockford—was under construction. On the first day, from home to Mauston, WI, we counted 13 serious, discrete construction zones. On day 2 (Mauston to Fargo, ND), the number went down to 8. Then on the third day, which took us to here, there were only two, but they were both quite long and aggravating.

Also, I had gotten goofed up on my medications, something we were able to fix yesterday, thanks to the local Thrifty White Pharmacy. I had spent the last few days feeling as though beetles were running through my body (a crude approximation), and it sure was good when that feeling was gone. But I had to cancel my StreetJelly show early enough, given the time difference and not knowing whether the fixing of meds would work, but I will make up for it sometime soon.

Then, yesterday we just drove around the environs, soaking in a little bit of life on the prairie strictly by means of observation.

I can’t recall now whether I said anything else in the post that was intended for yesterday. Below are some pictures of the scenery as soon as you’re outside of the city limits. There’s a sample below.

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Wednesday, May 13th 2015

0:01

Once Saved--Always Saved ?

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: okay

Wow! We’ve had some really nice days last week. This week we’re paying for them with dark clouds, thunderstorms, and high humidity. Those conditions presage that it’s getting close to graduation day at Taylor. commencementAnd so my thoughts turn to the many Saturdays spent in Odle Gymnasium on little aluminum chairs feeling my shirt underneath the academic regalia turn into a saturated sponge. I must confess that I do not miss this aspect of scholastic formality. Actually, over all of those years, it was seldom scorching hot outside, but the temperature and humidity inside the building seemed unbearable regardless. For my first fifteen or so years at Taylor, two ceremonies were held on that day: a baccalaureate service in the morning and the actual commencement in the afternoon; faculty attendance was mandatory for both of them.

 

The baccalaureate service lasted about two hours, beginning and ending with lengthy processionals and recessionals. The featured speaker of the day would deliver his (or her?—not in those days yet) wisdom to the graduates and the gathered audience. Elaborate prayers were read from starchy white sheets of paper. The choir and the concert band would add color to the occasion by performing serious, but not austere, numbers.

There would be a little interval for lunch, and then it was time again to stride into the sauna, duly attired once more in heavy black robes. Once seated, if you turned around, everywhere you looked in the bleachers, there were people fanning themselves with programs. This part, the second half of the day, was the official commencement ceremony. As before, it featured musical numbers and speeches, including one by a selected student who would unfailingly elaborate on the theme of cherishing the memories of the past while advancing into an uncertain future with confidence—not that there are too many alternative topics. Also during this session, if Taylor University awarded an honorary doctorate to a deserving person, it took place at this time. The recipients would then make little speeches of appreciation to the institution, and, though not declaring themselves unworthy of the honor, stress that it was, indeed, an honor and privilege to receive the degree. In certain cases, a significant donation to the university, past or present, was an implicit subtext.—And  why shouldn’t it be?—The board of trustees and the alumni association would convey greetings, making sure in a subtle and non-offensive way that the university would be receptive to little donations at some point in the future. Again, it was appropriate, but added to the duration of the time the faculty was being parboiled. A representative of the parent’s committee would drop a few words of kindness. At someone’s behest, the aggregated faculty would stand and receive a raucous round of applause for their hard work. Then, finally, it was time to hand out the diplomas to the graduates. Every student lined up in alphabetical order from, say, Agatha Aaba to Zacharias Zyze,  crossed the stage as his or her name was called, and received a diploma from the hand of the registrar, along with a hearty handshake from the president, provost, dean, and chairperson of the board of trustees. (I may have inadvertently left out or added a dignitary, for which I apologize.) Oh, how can I forget the little symbolic “servant’s towel” that came with the package! I don’t mean to make light of any of the specific aspects of this rite of passage since it appeared to be meaningful to many people, but it sure was no fun steaming inside of  that building, which was the point that started these reflections of mine.

In my later years at Taylor, the faculty voted along with the administration’s decision to eliminate the baccalaureate, limit the occasion to one event starting in the morning, which could be held outside in the football stadium if conditions permitted, but which also would be quite a bit longer than either prior segment since it incorporated elements of both.

And, while I’m on the topic, congratulations to longtime colleague and friend Phil Loy for being slated to receive an honorary doctorate at this year’s commencement.

*****

Kris KristoffersonNeither June nor I are quite yet done with doctor’s appointments. Tomorrow I finally get to see Dr. B, my regular neurologist. I have one kind of silly, but important, issue to bring up with him, and I’d appreciate your prayers. Then on Thursday, June has her surgery follow-up with Dr. G. The site of the former cyst appears to be healing okay, but I’m afraid I’m way past a point of confidence in making any optimistic conjectures. And yes, that comment reveals that my internal depression, which you probably wouldn’t notice in any casual conversation or my StreetJelly performance, is still sitting there. Martin Luther found relief from the doldrums in beer and music. Alas! I must settle for music.

Speaking of StreetJelly, I’m still searching for the proper technology to use my sequenced music as background in combination with my guitar and singing. To maybe keep you interested, here is my version of the traditional “If I had My Way,” as performed by my silicone chip combo, whom I shall call The Pythagoreans. [To be inserted ASAP] I think what I need is a mixer (not a blender, please!) as an actual piece of hardware and then learn to use it properly. To fulfill the second condition, I need some patient guidance from someone who knows what they're doing. In the meantime, please join me once again this coming Thursday, 9 pm Eastern, at www.StreetJelly.com. My loosely chosen theme is “Kris Kristofferson Tunes," but I won’t limit myself to them entirely. Also, it occurs to me that it would be fun to sneak in a couple of songs that are associated with Rita. I have a little backlog of requests from folks who haven’t been back since they asked for specific songs that I needed to learn , and I’ll be happy to attempt to fulfill their requests as well as further ones.

*****

A question sent to me a while back:

“Once Saved-Always Saved”—Is It True?

I don’t know. As everywhere else, it all depends on what you mean by the words.

That remark could be considered smart-alecky were it not for the fact that many people hold on to the slogan per se, and I can’t respond to it without establishing some more precision of what they have in mind by it. There is no question about the general context. According to evangelical theology (which I humbly equate with biblically-based theology, formulated according to our best understanding), we hold to the belief that we are not saved by our own works, but by the grace of God alone because God himself has reconciled us to him on the basis of the atoning death of Christ on the cross. We simply need to accept Christ and his work by faith, viz. by trusting him and relying on him, not in ourselves or our own good deeds.

Thus, the slogan “Once Saved—Always Saved” could be considered self-evidently true and not carry much further interest were it not for two questions that come up at times.  

Question 1. Is it possible for a true Christian to renounce his or her faith in Christ and stop being a Christian in any meaningful sense?

Question 2. If so, does that person lose their salvation as a consequence?

Could I possibly be forgiven if I did not launch right out into an academic theological or philosophical discussion on this subject? Instead, let me start with a little vignette that is typical for the occasions when the issue actually comes up making us wrestle with these questions.

Vignette: One of the various jobs I held while working my way up the academic ladder, was as helper in a small Christian bookstore, which belonged to that rare class of Christian bookstores whose merchandise consisted almost entirely of books. Only one little corner was reserved for religious trinkets. Often potential customers would walk in and ask to look at some books as a gift that might suit a particular person in a specific situation in life; e.g., something that would provide comfort to someone in times of trouble. Obviously, to do an effective job I had to have at least a general knowledge of most of the books we carried. I wish I was grossly exaggerating in what follows, but I’m not even exaggerating on a micro level. There were many times when the request was roughly as follows: “I would like a book that will help my cousin George grow as a Christian. I know that he is saved because I was there at youth camp when he walked forward during the invitation to take Christ in his heart and signed a decision card to that effect. Unfortunately, he has not grown in Christ since that time. Right now he says that he doesn’t want anything to do with God; in fact, I think he’s probably an atheist. He’s sleeping around with different women, and as far as I can tell he’s regularly using, if not even dealing in, drugs. So, do you have a good book that would help him advance in his Christian growth?”

Oh, how I wish I had just totally made up that scenario out of thin air! But, as I said, there were multiple occasions when someone told me of situations just as crass, if not more so. A relative or friend had made some kind of a gesture towards piety, which everyone interpreted as the person having become a Christian, although the individual in question showed no evidence whatsoever of God’s work in his or her life. In fact, everything looked to the contrary.

I need to make sure that we do not misunderstand each other on a couple of points here. First of all, I obviously could not have looked into this person’s heart, not even if he had stood right there in front of me. Thus, I could not know what God had done so far or was about to do in his or her life. All I could do was to react to what I was being told and try to follow the Bible as closely as I could in doing so. Second, again obviously, whether I declared this person to be saved, lost, backslidden, or whatever, would make no difference to their true spiritual state. I neither have nor wish to have the power of excommunication, let alone any so-far-unknown authority of "incommunication." Still, I had to make a choice. Should I direct the customer to books that would help this person grow in an already present relationship with God or books that would show him or her how to come into a genuine relationship with God through Christ. I wasn’t there to do theology, though my theology was obviously going to influence what I would say and how I would act, but I was there to help the customer select the most helpful literature—without letting on my own reaction in a distractive way.

And, you see, this is where Christians really should come together in their response. One’s understanding of such a situation obviously has a lot to do with whether one is “Arminian” or “Calvinist” in their theology, but one’s actions should not, viz., not if we read the same Bible and believe in the same gospel.

If I were a classical Arminian (not to be confused with the theology of Jacob Arminius) I could conceivably believe that George had been saved at one point, had lost his salvation, and needed to be saved once more. So, in helping my customer, I would try to recommend a book that explained God’s plan of salvation and pray that his cousin George would come to understand the gospel (again) and become a Christian (once more).

If I were a Calvinist, I would conclude on the basis of whatever information the customer had just given me that, judging by his life, he had never really become a Christian, and that whatever transpired at that youth rally years ago may have been a sincere attempt by him to take up religion, but was not a genuine point of conversion. And so, in helping my customer, I would try to recommend a book that explained God’s plan of salvation and pray that his cousin George would come to understand the gospel and become a Christian.

In other words, my reaction should not be really different in either case. Whether I was coming from an Arminian or Calvinist position would make no difference. George needed to be saved.

Of course, we all know that we cannot leave things there, and that our decision must ultimately fit in with our theological frameworks. And there is certainly a lot of room for disagreement between Calvinists, Wesleyan-Arminians, and those who call themselves Arminians but really go beyond the historical, traditional boundaries of that position. Still, I really want to try as hard as I can to keep this question from bearing all of the burden of global theological perspectives. Remember the portion of Charles Simeon's interview of John Wesley, on which I have written more in an earlier entry.

Simeon: "Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?"

Wesley: "No."

Simeon: "What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?"

Wesley: "Yes, altogether."

As I have tried to point out before, the real problem is not between an Arminianism or a Calvinism as lon as both of whom seek to ground themselves on scripture, but the ubiquitous pestilence of semi-Pelagianism, the belief that we can saved because God has given us all that is sufficient for us to do the works of righteousness necessary for salvation, making our salvation a wage earned rather than an undeserved gift. There are two extremes that we should avoid: the notion that salvation is something that we gain or lose depending on whether we have committed a sin or not at any given moment, as well as the idea that once we have made some superficial gesture towards God our works make no difference any longer.

The former notion should be pretty clear if we have an understanding of God’s grace. We are saved by his actions, not ours, and our actions are not going to make God's work appear from disappear moment to moment. God saved us when we were sinners and he, of course, knew it (Romans 5:18). However, the New Testament also consistently links good works to our salvation, not as a precondition or requirement, but as a consequence. Take Ephesians 2:8-10 for example: We are saved by grace alone, and there is nothing that we can contribute to our salvation. Nevertheless (v. 10), our salvation has the purpose of doing good works. A similar point is made in the book of Titus. In 3:5 Paul insists that God saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, and elaborates on that point. Then in v. 8 he writes about the consequence of having received free salvation: so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. The New Testament knows nothing along the idea that someone who acknowledges Christianity in some way and then goes on to ignore God and sins as he pleases should still be counted among those who are saved.

Now, I would like to zero in just a little bit more on my own point of view, knowing full well that there are loyal readers who take a different approach. What does the Bible say about those who at one time appeared to be Christians but have since totally broken with God. A very clear response is found in 1 John 2:19:

They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us. (HCSB)

Furthermore, I would suggest that those folks who believe that someone could lose their salvation and then needs to be saved again have a sizeable problem with Hebrews 6:4-6. These verses are often cited in defense of the idea that it is possible to lose your salvation. I don’t know about that; such an interpretation ignores vss. 1-3. In the light of the first 3 verses of that chapter, the author is writing hypothetically here, making the point that if it were, indeed, possible to lose your salvation, there would be no opportunity for re-salvation, and that latter point strikes me as quite unequivocal in the passage. Apparently, the people who constituted the original target audience of this letter were practicing re-salvation on a regular basis, and the author responds that they should move on from there. Re-salvation is not possible because if it were possible to lose your salvation in Christ, there would be no other place to go for re-salvation.

Theologians sometimes introduce a somewhat artificial distinction concerning this issue by using two different phrases, “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints.” In this context, “eternal security” is often linked to “Once Saved—Always Saved” and may entail the codicil, “no matter what you do for the rest of your life.” In this antinomian sense, it is not a biblical idea. What you do for the rest of your life shows who and what you are. The term “perseverance of the saints” is intended to capture the idea that someone who is genuinely saved will not only remain saved for all eternity, but also show evidence of their salvation in their lives. “Perseverance of the saints” includes “eternal security,” but not as a license to sin. Those who are eternally secure in Christ will give evidence of their state by the lives the righteous life they pursue. If we would like to return to the two question we posed earlier on, the surprising, but biblical answer is “no” to question 1, thus obviating the second one.

Some people reading the above may say, “Well, that doesn’t leave many true Christians on earth,” and I won’t take issue with you as long as you don’t exclude me. But, then again, I don’t know where you get your standards, and I’m talking about something far more fundamental, namely, concrete signals of not wanting to have anything to do with Christ, not whether a man's hair may be too long or a woman's sleeves too short. Thus, I prefer not to go too far out on a limb and specify exactly what the "markers" of such a person should be, beyond an obvious concern for God, his Word, and his people. In the more extreme cases that give rise to the debate, we’re not usually dealing with subtleties. To be sure, God works individually with people through their personalities, and often when we are judgmental of a person, it’s because we have no idea how far he or she has already come. He has undoubtedly changed my life in different ways than he may have changed yours, and a third person will exhibit growth in still some other way. However, to return to the bookstore scenario, if someone supposedly has a relationship to God through Jesus Christ, and yet totally ignores God, God's people, God's precepts, and for all purposes, both practical and theoretical, renounces Christ in words and actions, I must do what I can that the person really does come to real salvation in Christ.  In accord with the best of my limited perception this person is not a Christian, and, to remain with the vignette, I should reach for, say, John Stott’s Basic Christianity than maybe some other author's Meditating with Habakkuk or whatever.

Let me to be totally open with you here. I know some people who at one time appeared to have been utterly devoted to Christ, understood the gospel and shared it, had a solid knowledge of God's Word, and yet turned around and renounced all of it. (I might add that I’m not thinking of anyone here for whom there’s any likelihood that they would read this blog. I’m thinking of people from whom I have learned, not ones whom I have attempted to teach.) I do not understand what happened or is happening in the lives of these people. So, please know that all that I said before is my best attempt, which is far from sufficiently exhaustive to cover all the riddles and disappointments of life. Fortunately, holding a theological point of view does not imply omniscience on the part of the theologian, and I can do no more than leave such enigmas in God’s hands. However, it would be a serious mistake to build my theology around some instances that I don’t understand rather than to begin with the Bible and the apply it as God permits me to have enough wisdom.

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Tuesday, May 5th 2015

11:30

Update-Mostly Medical

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Relieved
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Waiting Room Television.

Yes, that’s what this is. A blog entry. I think it’s been well over six weeks, but I hesitate to look it up because I don’t like to think how long I have not been writing any. The reason has basically been physical and emotional exhaustion as well as a little medical issue on which I shall elaborate further down. Writing a blog entry, particularly one that frequently uses humor or self-deprecation in covering up more serious issues, requires the energy to understand the situation and to rise above it to a certain extent, and then to set it down with self-assurance, and that’s just not been there. To be sure, I have accumulated a little backlog of blog entries; for some of them I actually did a bit of research, and they will eventually get their turn. For now, here's just a quick and sketchy update. I’m sorry if this piece reads too much like a medical report, but that’s been a big aspect of our lives.

*****

In trying to get things rolling again, one item to which I need to pay more attention is managing my time and energy. Please don’t get me wrong: I love answering questions that you send to me by email, messenger, on Facebook, as a comment to one of these entries, etc. The hiccup is that, once I’ve written a 3 to 4 page answer, which has not been unusual in the past, I’m done, and there is little chance that I’m also going to be able to write a substantive blog entry on that same day. So, in the future, some of you asking serious questions may receive a direct personal, but brief, answer from me, and I may wind up expanding it on the blog. Needless to say (though I’m saying it anyway), unless you asked the question publicly or have given me permission, the answer on the blog will not carry your name or other features that might reveal your identity.

*****

As to the present, I am sitting here in the back of the large outpatient surgery waiting room of what is quickly becoming our home away from home: community Hospital in Anderson, dictating in a soft voice to the Dragon. June is now in her little pre-surgery cubicle, getting prepped by the nurses for surgery. If you’ve kept up with my sporadic notices on Facebook, you may recall that she has a cyst in her lower back that about 3 weeks ago became inflamed due to an infection. She went to see the doctor who thought it might be pretty much under control after a few days at home with antibiotics, but that did not work at all. So, two weeks ago she was here in the hospital for two days for intravenous antibiotic treatment, and then came home again, continuing with the antibiotics. When she was at Dr. G’s last week, he was surprised how little progress the treatment had shown. Surgery had been scheduled for today anyway, and they’re going through with it, but it’s still far more inflamed than we had anticipated. The good thing is that the CAT scan did not show that the inflammation had spread its tentacles right into the backbone, but — as we have learned a while back — you never really know until the surgeon opens it up and sees it. Undoubtedly I won’t get this published until the surgery is over, but your prayers for her recovery and ongoing well-being from here on out are highly appreciated.

I have now moved to the pre-op cubicle by June’s side, waiting for her to be carted into the operating room.

As for my health, skipping the details of the harmless idiosyncrasies that the cardiac test manifested, I’m doing okay. As I mentioned above, my biggest issue has been the clinical depression that just shows up from time to time. This is not due to specific external causes nor a lack of faith in God, I think, but something that just shows up and goes away again as my body attempts to manage its serotonin. I must add that experiments with the dosage of my beta-blocker haven’t contributed to my well-being. A beta-blocker reduces your blood pressure and your heart rate and may have other effects as well.  

After my crash landings in January, when we discovered that they were due to my taking too many medications that lowered my blood pressure, I completely stopped one immediately, did not stop the Levo (for Parkinson’s), and did not dare touch the beta blocker without professional supervision. I had been taking a relatively small, but efficacious, dose of the latter, call it “T,” once a day. You definitely can’t just stop taking it, and one should be really careful in discontinuing it. As Dr. G was not available, I saw, his associate, NPA (Nurse Practitioner "A"), about it, and she cut the amount of “T” in half. A couple of days later someone from the office called to tell me that Dr. G had reviewed her order and wanted me to take that half dosage every other day.

The problem is that “T” has a half life of only 6-7 hours (half of it has degraded or discharged from your body in that amount of time), and it is pretty much entirely excreted after 24 hours. So, I was riding on a blood pressure roller coaster ranging from, say, 115/70, in the morning of “on” days to 175/100 on “off” days. You can’t live that way, at least not productively. When I saw NPA again last week, she restored the dosage back to the original amount. Doing so, of course, increases the likelihood of falls in the future, but at least I’m slowly getting a life back, and I’m working on various safety measures.

In any event, as I mentioned, I’m still trying to climb out of the hole. Last Thursday evening I pretty much hit the bottom. I realized that I was not able to go to an event of my former department at Taylor, for which I felt badly. I did think that I would try my usual StreetJelly gig. Nothing doing. I was really feeling rotten. Also, the week before, as some of you witnessed, I tried to play some chords that I knew were a real challenge for me nowadays, and I promptly hurt my left hand in the process. That’s gotten better, but the effects were still lingering. So, when I was starting to get ready, it became clear that I could not perform, and that was that.

I am intending to do a show this coming Thursday, assuming I can finally get the technology straightened out. Some of you long-time readers may remember that, when I couldn’t play guitar for a number of years earlier, I filled my need for music by composing and arranging songs as instrumental midis and mp3s. This coming Thursday (9 pm Eastern) I intend to play the guitar lightly, without stressing the hand too much, and also use my own computer-generated music as background. Here is a sample of one piece that may not be on the program due to a lack of lyrics (at least so far; maybe I’ll play the harmonica to it). For this piece I challenged myself to see if I could create something that would have the same kind of rhythmic drive that characterizes the band Exile, who were big in the eighties and are still around. I’ll let you judge if the attempt was successful. I call it “Exiled in Style.” I use the program called “Harmony Assistant” and write each note, pause, dot or stress sign individually (incl. copy and paste, of course). In other words, I don’t use any midi-input machine.

 

*****

June is now in surgery, so I won’t delay in posting this message, and more links and maybe pictures will hopefully appear over the course of the day.

*****

Hold on! The doctor just came out to say that June’s surgery is already over and went well. Praise God (and the doctors, nurses, and everyone else whom he used). 

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Friday, March 13th 2015

20:15

Radioactivity in my Body

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Really tired
  • IN THE BACKDROP: SpencerJaycob on Street Jelly

Third day; third attempt. On Wednesday evening I tried to write a blog entry, and I got quite a lot written. The problem was that, by the time I quit, I had put together several pages concerning the isotopes of the element Technetium. It was fascinating stuff as far as I’m concerned, but probably not of general interest. Then yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I started over, but realized after a time that what I was writing, regardless of how good it may have been, was embedded in a dialectical maze of stream-of-consciousness. Marcel Proust might have appreciated it, though I doubt it, but I definitely couldn’t expect my faithful readers to wade through a lengthy article, perhaps entitled Mes Pensées Perdues. Thus, another try ...

... and, now I'm writing this a couple of hours after the above paragraph and most of the material below, another failure. General interest will just have to skip it. 

I've streamlined the information on Technetium, but doing so took as much time and energy as I have, and I'm going to post this now, because I'd rather start with something fresh the next time. An additional factor is that Bravenet has done a thorough revision of its journal entry format, which is incredibly nice, but I have needed to familiarize with it, and now I'm eager to see how it actually will come out. 

So, let me tell you about the last few days, which, as I mentioned in the last entry, would be taken up by dentist visits for June and cardiac testing for me. I told you that June usually has a really hard time in the dentist’s chair, and her experiences on Monday and Thursday weren’t great. We must say, though, that Dr. D, the dentist, is being more aware of her particular needs than any other one she’s had previously. I mean, who wants to hear, “That couldn’t possibly hurt!” when it hurts? Dr. D actually studied up on Wednesday evening on how to approach a patient with June’s dental arrangement.  

The weather has finally risen above freezing. We’ve had a good amount of rain, resulting in flooding in some counties of Indiana, but not ours (yet). However, there is an incredible amount of mud everywhere.

If over the last few days you have noticed that my giving off a warm friendly glow, the reason could be that I had been injected with a radioactive element. It happened in conjunction with the two-day cardiac test on Tuesday and Wednesday. I thought it was just going to be a treadmill stress test until Monday evening when I glanced at the doctor’s orders and found a word that I had to look up because it was not familiar to me. The word was "Cardiolite," and it refers to a preparation of the radioactive element Technetium. So, at that point I realized that radioactive imaging of my heart was a part of the test, which gave me a (totally unnecessary) strange feeling. I can tell you that the results of the purely stress part  of the test came out fine, but I’m still waiting to hear or read the results of the radioactive aspect. Seriously, I didn’t glow, though if I had been near a Geiger counter on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, it would have detected a small amount of radiation in me. The worst part of the procedure was having to stay off some of my medications and all forms of caffeine for several days. Unsurprisingly, I wound up with a pretty bad headache by Tuesday evening, which remained at a mitigated level through Wednesday. 

I wanted to put the results of my internet study of Technetium in a table alongside other material, but since I changed my mind and am not adding any further material, I'll leave it as a list in the main text. 

Fun Facts about Technetium

  • Its symbol is Tc; its atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus) is 43.Thus its formal abbreviation 43Tc, with the atomic number as a subscript to the left. But everyone who knows about Tc should probably know its atomic number anyway.
  • Its existence was predicted by Dmitri Menedleev (1834-1907), the first person to put together a functional (i.e. accurate) periodic table. 
  • Tc is the first element in the periodic table that has only radioactive isotopes, no stable ones. Isotope designations refer to the atomic mass of an element. Cf. Carbon, atomic number 6 (6C), has the isotopes Carbon 12 (stable) and Carbon 14 (radioactive)—hereafter 12C or 14C. The notation for an atomic mass is a superscript to the left.
  • Technetium was the first element in the periodic table, as well as in history, to be almost entirely the product of synthesis; hence its name, which means “artificial.” It is usually a by-product of the fission of Uranium (235U) in nuclear reactors. (A few traces of 97Tc, found at some natural radiation spots on earth, are an exception.)
  • The isotope of Technetium with the longest half-life is 98Tc lasting a venerable 4.2 million years. That expression means that it would take 4.2 million years for one half of any given mass of Tc to decay.
  • There are different ways in which Tc emits radiation. The end product depends on the process. It can be an isotope of Molybdenum (42Mo) or Ruthenium (44Ru)
  • The isotope of Technetium used for medical testing is 99mTc; the "m" stands for “metastable,” which means in this case that it does not decay into another element, but into another isotope of Technetium, namely 99Tc.
  • 99mTc has a half-life of ca. 6 hours. It gives off gamma rays, a form of electromagnetic radiation, as it decays into 99Tc. Almost all of the 99mTc will have gone through this transition within 24 hours.
  • 99Tc has a half life of ca. 210,000 years. Its process of decay releases negative beta rays, which means that certain neutrons turn into protons, electrons, and anti-neutrinos. Its end product is 99Ru.
  • The above point does not mean that I will have 99Tc in my body for the rest of my life, even though the life span of my present body will most likely be less than a compounded 210,000 years. Presumably I will have excreted all of it within a few days. Thus, just as with Moses, the glow—if there had been any—would fade.
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Monday, March 9th 2015

23:41

10 Questions on Buddhism

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: As explained, INY
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Josh of the North on StreetJelly

First, an irritation: I don’t get very many comments for my blog entries here on Bravejournal; but that's not it. Most of the discussion, if there is any, winds up taking place on Facebook, and that’s great. However, I do get an incredible amount of spam on this blog, and that's become a real annoyance. I’m afraid I’m having to go to a system of screening comments. Please feel free to comment here, and I will bring your insights to light asap. The “funny” thing is that over the years, many good-faith comments have gotten clogged up for a time in the spam filter, while French-Canadian soothsayers and Malaysian luggage sellers (and much worse) have gotten a free pass until I caught their inventive supplementary material. I have a list of maybe fifty or more internet addresses that I have blocked, but now there is one company that either uses lots of people in different locations or has lots of different computer lines because they continue to insert their questionable contributions with new address numbers. I can’t stop them—except by using a comment moderating system.

*****

The last ten days or so have not been easy for some reason. Both June and I have felt drained. StreetJelly has been a good motivator for me, but on the whole I’ve just been down both physically and psychologically. In technical terms, I’m calling it “idiopathic non-specific yuckiness” (INY). “Idiopathic” means that we don’t know what causes it. “Non-specific” means that it isn’t limited to a particular location or a single identifiable symptom. “Yuckiness” can be roughly translated as “Crumminess” or “Ickiness.” -- This year it’s June’s turn for long-range work by Dr. D, our competent dentist. We visited Dr. D on the outskirts of Indianapolis today (Monday). Tomorrow and Wednesday I have to undergo some cardiology tests at the hospital; and then on Thursday, it’ll be off to Dr. D’s for June’s teeth again. Dental visits are the purgatory of June's life. I also need to mention that my dad in Germany is suffering from a rather severe case of the flu and is being taken care of by a very nice couple who are members of the church that my dad started quite a while back. Prayers are definitely appreciated.

*****

Be sure not to miss my regular StreetJelly set this coming Thursday evening at 9 pm Eastern Day-light-savings Time. The theme will be “Chip-Kicking Songs.” I have the feeling I’ll be in the mood for them at that point. If you don't know what a chip-kicking song is, come and find out. (Hint: Rule out products made of potatoes, plastic, or wood.)

*****

I’ve tried once before to do what I’m about to do, but didn’t follow through. I’m getting a lot of questions that either need or deserve long answers, which at times has meant that I wound up spending my limited physical energy and time on them at the expense of writing a blog entry. So, I’m going to try to combine the two. I will ask permission to do so for privately asked questions, obviously keeping the questioner’s name anonymous. If the questions are publicly posed, there shouldn’t be a problem with a public answer anyway. I’ll still keep the name of the questioner anonymous--unless it’s obviously a “handle” anyway.

The following set of questions was sent in relation to the video “Basic Teachings of Buddhism,”  which I contributed to the website Dharma2Grace.net. Everything else is explained below.

Dear DHOC!

Thank you for your good questions concerning Buddhism. Before starting to try to answer them, I need to make a couple of very important points. As I mentioned in my description of this video, it is actually a part of a larger website, Dharma2Grace.net , which constitutes 1) an attempt to provide accurate information on Buddhism for Christians and 2) a means of establishing communication with Buddhists so that they may take a serious look at Christianity. Thus, a lot of your questions and many more are actually answered on that much larger website, which goes into a lot of details as well as the various schools of Buddhism.

Consequently, you need also to realize that I am not a Buddhist, but a Christian. As part of the larger website, in order to make discussion between Buddhists and Christians meaningful, we are trying to give as accurate a description of Buddhism as possible, and this video is a part of that effort. So, it does not stand alone and should not be treated that way. If you go to the page on the website that is labeled “Basics Beliefs,”  you will find that there is a similar video on basic teachings of Christianity. In fact, it is also right there on YouTube. One has to house a video someplace on the Internet, and so some of them are on YouTube, but they should actually be watched in the context of the whole site. Still "Basic Teachings of Buddhism" has taken on a life of its own, and a number of Buddhist groups have even embedded it in their websites, which makes me feel good in so far as it seems to make it pretty clear that what I’m saying is in fact true with regard to Buddhism, but I really wish that people would watch the counterparts concerning Christianity as well. They are easily as important — or even more important from a Christian point of view. So, whenever you say in your questions, “as a Buddhist,” my answer has to be in terms of “if I were a Buddhist.” However, I have studied Buddhism, its Scriptures, and its practices for a long time, and I’m quite confident that what I am saying concerning Buddhism is correct.

Now to your questions:

1. Did the Buddha perform miracles for his followers on earth? Let me make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. We can affirm that there was a historical Buddha, though we do not have a lot of reliable information about him, certainly less than we have about, say, Jesus or Muhammad. Still, there’s no good reason to doubt that in the sixth century BC a person called Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Sakyamuni—“the Wise Man of the Sakya Clan”) was a real man, who taught the basic content of Buddhism based on his own religious experience, and who gathered a multitude of disciples. The further we move in time away from his life, the more the stories of his life expanded and became embellished. (There’s an important contrast between Jesus and the Buddha here; the gospels were written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, as opposed to the lives of Buddha that arose centuries after him. ) These embellishments included various scenarios in which the Buddha was said to have performed out-of-the-ordinary feats, which we might call “miracles,” although that’s probably not an appropriate term.

From the customary perspective, “miracles” are events in which God acts directly within his creation. Since in Buddhism the various traditional Indian gods, let alone the true God, are not all that important, Sakyamuni’s actions must be interpreted as “magic.” By that word I mean “the manipulation of spiritual forces,” as I explained in an entry not too long ago. In later accounts many magical actions are attributed to him as well as to some of his disciples. Also, many of them would come more under the heading of “special effects” rather than healings and tangible helps.

So, we can illustrate another big difference between the Buddha and Jesus, which I related a while back. This very poignant contrast is found in two somewhat parallel stories concerning Buddha and Jesus. In Luke 7:11-16, Jesus encountered a widow whose son had just died and raised him from the dead. In Buddhism there is a story of a woman, named Kisa Gotami, who also had a son who just died and the only thing the Buddha did, because that’s all he could do, was to get Kisa to see that she must stop being attached to people, even to relatives such as her son, so that then, when they pass away, the suffering will not be as great.

2. If you were a Buddhist would you believe that you would be with Buddha once you are dead? The short answer is “no” There are many different schools of Buddhism, who, I would say, differ among each other even more than Christian denominations, and, thus, they sometimes hold crassly different views on various topics. But one point on which they all pretty much agree is that when you die there are basically two options: One is that you will be reincarnated and continue to live as a new person animal or spirit, and this process could go on for ever and ever, depending on the kind and amount of karma that you accrue for yourself. The other option is that, if you happen to be reborn as a human being it will be possible, under ideal circumstances, for you to attain the state of Nirvana (though note the differences brought up in the Mahayana schools). Nirvana is not being with Buddha, but is a state in which everything that you have associated with your personhood up to now no longer exists. Many Buddhists insist that it is not synonymous with “nothingness,” but it is certainly not something to which actual words can be applied in a meaningful way. At a minimum, when you are in Nirvana, you are totally disconnected from this world, and there are no personal relationships, not even with the Buddha, in any form that could be expressed meaningfully.

As long as we’re on the subject let me clarify that, contrary to the understanding of many Western people nowadays who think of Buddhism as some kind of “recreational religion,” the consequences of your karma, according to Asian Buddhism, are very serious and possibly quite severe. A lot of people including a number of folks who have written comments on the YouTube site, have said that they prefer Buddhism because in Buddhism there is no such thing as “hell.” Well, for one thing truth is not determined by our preferences. Just because someone doesn’t like hell does not mean that it does not exist. For another, the fact is that Buddhism does, in fact, have a very solid view of hell as one of the stages of life in which you may wind up spending possibly billions and billions of years due to your karma. Unfortunately, many people just have no idea of how serious the teachings of Buddhism actually are, and that merely meditating at your convenience will neither give you merit, let alone enlightenment, nor make you a true Buddhist, just as going to church on Easter Sunday in order to show off your new clothes does not make you a Christian.

3. What are the do’s and don’ts as for Buddhist male or female followers? There are many obligations and prohibitions in Buddhism, depending on the schools and their geographical locations. In general, Buddhist laypersons are expected to abide by the “Five Precepts,” as mentioned in the vido, and then there is a basic expectation of living a virtuous life in more general terms, which I can’t possibly describe in all of its detail here. Please, again, see the sections of Dharma2Grace, as well as my accounts of travels in Buddhist countries, e.g, Thailand or Taiwan. In the more traditional versions of Buddhism only a monk who has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of enlightenment will be able to attain Nirvana. All others, if they good to lead good lives, may become a higher order being in their next life, perhaps even someone who can become a monk and find enlightenment, but for the most part all that is open to them is the accumulation of merit. For some of the traditional differences between men and women in Buddhism, I need to refer you once more to these particular sites.

4. If you were a Buddhist, would you see those who don't follow or believe in Buddha as sinful and wrong? In theory, people who are not Buddhists are seen by Buddhists as still on the way to the full truth. The fact that they are not Buddhists by itself is not seen as sinful, but it would be interpreted as the consequence of having been sinful in previous lives. So, if I were a Buddhist I should be completely tolerant of all people who don’t share my personal views, viz. Buddhists who hold different versions of my understanding of Buddhism as well us of non-Buddhists, and many Buddhists claim that this attitude has been universally true for them. The real truth of the matter is that Buddhism is no more tolerant than any other religion, and that much blood has been shed over the millennia not only in battles against non-Buddhists, but also between different schools of Buddhism.

5. If you’re a married couple under Buddhism and you get a baby, do you have to pray for your child and give your child to Buddha? Ultimately, each person is responsible for himself or herself. Depending again on the particular school of Buddhism, there are various initiatory ceremonies that children may be put through. “Giving the child to Buddha” would not really capture the idea behind such a rite. Rather, it should be seen as a step in raising the child to live by the principles of Buddhism.

6. If you were a Buddhist, what would Jesus be to you? Please see the article on the page written by Stuart Redi on the differences between Jesus and Buddha.  Many Buddhists try to make a case that in some bizarre way, Jesus was a Buddhist, and some have even tried to go so far as to say that Jesus and the Buddha were different incarnations of the same person. You can hold to such a theory only if you ignore the differences between their lives and their teachings. In other words, inventing such identities has no merit whatsoever. Saying something is true does not make it true, and that truism also applies to those Buddhists who make the stupendous claim that Jesus was a Buddhist.

It may be a good idea here to point out that there are some very basic fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism the main purpose is to provide us with the knowledge necessary to escape from the potentially never-ending cycle of reincarnations and to find refuge in Nirvana. In Christianity, Jesus came to earth to teach the righteousness of God, of which we all fall short, and to die and rise again in order to make atonement for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God. These are totally different concepts and so, Buddha was not a pre-Christian, nor was Jesus a Jewish Buddhist. In my view, Buddha was a wise person who latched onto an interesting idea that arose in the context of his culture, but he missed out on the basic reason for problems in the world, namely our sinfulness and alienation from God, whereas Jesus is the son of God incarnate who came to earth as a Redeemer for all who have faith in him. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast!

7. If  you were a Buddhist, would you have religious leaders e.g pastors, priests and popes? The organization of Buddhism really depends on the schools, and, again, geography. There is usually at a minimum the difference between monks and lay persons, but in many schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism there are hierarchies, as seen, for example, in the Dalai Lama, who could be viewed, by means of a heavy tour-de-force as a kind of "pope." Temples of (Japanese) Pure Land Buddhism and of most branches Nichiren Shoshu have priests. I can’t forego mentioning, though, one time when I took a class to a Pure Land temple, and the priest introduced himself by saying, “I’m a Buddhist priest, whatever the h*** that is supposed to be.” His background was in Zen.

8. If you were a Buddhist, would you believe in Satan, the devil, demons and evil spirits? If so, how do you cast out evil spirits? Do you believe in witchcraft and necromancy in Buddhism? As I already indicated with regard to the Buddha’s “miracles,” yes, Buddhism oftentimes includes elements of the occult, particularly in the so-called esoteric schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism or the Japanese Shingon school. I don't much care to go into further specifics on this matter.

9. Would you offer tithes and offerings? What percentage of your income must you provide? Where would you pay? Yes, making offerings is considered to be an important way of earning merit. It’s not so much a matter of giving a percentage of your income, but doing whatever you can. Then, the more you do, the greater the merit that you achieve. There is a real conundrum here. It is considered to be an act of merit to give something to a monk or to a temple. Rich people can give a lot, and therefore can earn great merit. Poor people don’t have much to give, and they may even not be able to give anything. Consequently, in this regard, they are in a much worse position to bring about better karma for themselves than rich people. In a Christian context, we would think that the purpose of being a monk might be to help poor people. In many forms of Buddhism, monks do help people, but, paradoxically, by giving them the opportunity to give offerings to them (the monks). The reasoning here, as in other South-Asian religions, is that if people cannot make donations (or are suffering in other ways), they must have incurred bad karma in a previous existence. So, they will just have to live with the fact that they cannot improve their karma much in this particular life either.

10. Would you have a Holy Bible? Buddhism has many writings that they consider to be Scriptures. The oldest, sometimes called the "Pali Canon," a huge collection of books, may contain teachings that go back to the Buddha himself. Later schools of Buddhism recognize various other writings, called “sutras” as holy books as well. A particularly famous example is the Lotus Sutra, which is well known and revered by a number of schools of Buddhism. Still, it is not possible to say that there is one book or collection of books that all Buddhists accept as inspired writings in a way similar to the way in which Christians agree that the Bible is the main source of divine revelation (including those Christian groups who add certain traditions).

I hope that I have answered your questions at least sufficiently to motivate you to do further readings, including the websites that I have mentioned. Buddhism is becoming a powerful force in our culture, far more so than many Christians are either realizing or are willing to realize. We need to become educated on Buddhism so that we can confront its teaching knowledgeably and not on the basis of preconceived notions. —

These replies are rather sketchy, and I would really urge anyone who sees an opportunity for constructive criticism to pursue the websites and my writings before calling my attention to generalizations of which I'm already all-too-painfully aware.

Pictures tomorrow hopefully.

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Monday, February 23rd 2015

20:53

Relating to God, part 5c

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Okay.

I really try not to turn this blog into either a medical diary or a weather journal, but when things get weird, I don’t want to leave them out either. Right now the persistence of the cold weather is, in my opinion, noteworthy. Here is a table of the predictions for the rest of this week, the end of February. The degrees are, of course, in Fahrenheit.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thurs

Fri

Sat

High

13

25

22

15

15

23

Low

-4

12

-1

-6

-3

14

 

Then on Sunday, March 1, it's supposed to warm up and climb all the way to 41. We'll see. That's what they said about this last weekend as well, and it didn't turn out that way. As the local people say everywhere you go, "We seem to be having unusual weather this year."

Me on StreetJelly*****

Once again, I would like to extend an invitation to join me on StreetJelly.com on Thursday night at 9 pm.  The program will be a potpourri of songs, and I’m planning on unveiling the StreetJelly Blues (provisional title), which I wrote yesterday afternoon while watching the Daytona 500. Requests, particularly ahead of time, are welcome.

*****

Speaking of Daytona, yesterday’s race was incredible; much of the time the cars were running three abreast. The Daytona Speedway is a large track, where the cars, as they are set up presently, attain speeds over 200 mph (322 kph). In the past, as the race proceeded, there would usually be two lines of cars, racing side by side, drafting behind the leaders in front. Obviously, you could get out of line and pass the car(s) in front of you, which happens quite often, but you would do so at your peril. If you got caught in the middle of the two lines without a Joey Logano Daytona 2015drafting partner, you’d probably lose a lot of positions pretty quickly. For that matter, for cars to attempt to go through the turns three abreast had been fairly risky. This year, three abreast was the norm. The reason given was that this year there were no technical changes mandated for the cars, so the crews could tinker with last year's specs to the point of near-perfection. The picture almost looks like a parade lap with Joey Logano's machine as the pace car. But it actually depicts full-speed racing.

In comparison to open wheel race cars (such as Indy cars), stock cars can run much closer to each other. In the former, if two cars should touch while they are side-by-side, chances are that two wheels would come together like two gears, and the effect would be that one or even both cars would go flying. Since in stock cars the wheels are protected, you get “door-handle to door-handle” racing, so that cars may even touch each others’ sides without serious damage. I remember in an ASA race a number of years ago two drivers named Mike Eddy and Scott Hanson were racing side by side around a track for fifty laps or so, with neither one of them giving an inch. Yesterday, it was “door-handle to door-handle to door-handle.” Congratulations to Joey Logano for the big win!

*****

In the last entry I tried to make the point that many people confuse miracles, which God gives at his discretion, with magic, by which human beings supposedly have acquired the correct technique to influence the spirits or gods or God to perform supernatural feats. In magic, if I were to pray to God and ask for a miracle under the right conditions, the miracle should happen. So, unbelievers sometimes challenge Christians to either produce a miracle or, at a minimum, specify the conditions under which we can expect a miracle. That's asking for magic, not a miracle, and you can't fault the Christian for not being able to control God so as to do magic tricks with his power. To be sure, there are miracles, and God answers prayers, but it is not possible for us to constrain his will.

 

Magic

Miracles

Prayer

The human being is able to apply the proper technique so that spirits or gods will do what the person is asking for, including events that we would consider to be miracles.

God’s direct intervention in events in his creation. His personal free actions supersede the usual patterns according to the laws of nature or our expectations. The occurrence of miracles is at God’s pleasure, and we cannot specify when he brings about a miracle.

Our communication with God, based on our understanding of his word, the Bible. In accordance with his plan, God will respond to our prayers, but not necessarily by giving us what we want. Most importantly, we affirm that we are secure in God’s hands, even in troubling circumstances.

If it’s okay with you, I’m going to leave that statement about prayer alone for the moment so that we will not to loose track of the main point completely. Let’s go back to “Emil’s” assertions and respond to him by looking at the various components of his statement. Remember that Emil is a fictional individual, but I’m sure any active Christian reading these lines has heard them multiple times before, as I have. Using a fictional person gives me the freedom to write more directly, and perhaps a little more harshly, than I would in interacting with a real person.

 

I like Christianity.  It’s a nice religion.  I’m glad it gets people to love others and to help them, and I’m sure that a lot of people find meaning in it.

Emil, this beginning already shows us that your fundamental understanding of Christianity is in need of correction. It does not reflect what Christians themselves hold to as the meaning of Christianity. You seem to see Christianity pretty much on a horizontal plane on which people care for each other, presumably because they are emulating the love of God by loving other people. I hope that Christian communities are characterized by genuine love, and many, though clearly not all, fit that description. But positive human relationships are only the consequence of the far more important restoration of a broken relationship with God through Christ. Thus, the vertical precedes the horizontal. Emil, you are commenting on the truth of Christianity in general terms, but you do not mention anything about Christ dying on the cross as atonement for your sins. Apparently you are limiting God’s function simply to providing good things for people, and, thus, you are missing the main point.

My problem is that it doesn’t work.

Emil, there are quite a few other people who have made that statement to me and have meant it in the same way as you do. God did not take away a particular problem that they had, and, thus, Christianity did not “work” for them. But, whether I’m talking to you or a confirmed atheist or an adherent to other religions, I must stick to the beliefs that reside at the core of Christianity, namely, as I said above, the gospel of redemption. So, when you say that Christianity doesn’t “work,” strictly speaking you would be saying that Christ’s redemption was a failure, which is a very odd statement to make (though some cult leaders, e.g. Sun Myung Moon, actually have made that claim). I realize that this is not what you have in mind. You, along with various other people, are complaining that Christianity has not eliminated the hardships from your life. But that is something that we are not promised anywhere.

If Christianity were true, wouldn’t God make sure than none of his children would have to suffer?—or at least that they would suffer less? I mean, even if for some reason there has to be some evil in the world, couldn’t God be doing at least a little better job?

Emil, here you are bringing up the conceptual problem of evil, which truly is an important issue. For more thoughts on that subject, please read my lengthier Thoughts on the Problem of Evil  as well as, say, chapter seven of No Doubt About It. In our conversation here we are looking more on the subjective side of the issue. Let me tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, Christians should feel genuinely troubled by all of the evil and suffering in the world. God has created us with that sensitivity, and so we should be experiencing the tension between our belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and the reality of evil. But, Emil, think about this: if God really has all of those infinite attributes that result in a conflict between what we know of him and the reality of evil and suffering in the world, then the correct inference must be that God is in the process of eliminating that evil. In fact, only an infinite God is able to do so. Thus, the very same properties of God that give rise to the tension also provide confidence for a resolution. I’m afraid, though, (and I feel bad saying so, even though it's necessary)that you’re not really thinking along such broad lines. I get the feeling that for you, as for so many other people, the definition of evil seems to boil down to not getting what you desire, a point that you make pretty clear in what follows.

Emil, your prayer wasn’t all that small. You were asking for a miracle. We’ll come back to this matter in a moment.

The other day, I was on my way to church; you’d think God would want me there to worship him.

Emil, you can’t make bargains with God. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, and you are his creature. Miraculously (if I may use that expression here), he loves you; in fact he loves you so much that Jesus paid for your sins in his death on the cross. Furthermore, if you are a Christian he dwells within you and is changing you into a new and better person. But all of those things come from him by his love and grace, not as a response to a bargain you have struck with him. If I may take recourse to one of my favorite medieval thinkers, you are exhibiting what Meister Eckhart called a “merchant mentality,” by which he meant that many people think that they can undertake business-like ventures with God. "God, in exchange for my doing this and that, I expect you to do that and this."

It doesn’t work that way; the merchant mentality really is no different from magic. You think that God owes you thanks for going to church. To be really honest, we sometimes make a big deal about whether a person is within a designated church building for a minimum amount of time on a Sunday morning, but I’m not sure that God cares all that much about where you sit at that time. He does not need your worship as the deities of other religions do, in which the deities are believed lose power if they do not receive their daily portion of attention.  God wants our worship as long as it is an expression of our submission and gratitude to him and heartfelt praise of him. If it were possible to bribe God to do something for you, and all it amounts to is that you sit in a church service, you have picked about the lowest level of payment I can think of.

But no, my car was really low on gas, and I kept praying that the Lord would make it last to the next gas station.  That would have been such an easy thing for him to do, and I was really sincere.  I told God that if he would make the gas go all the way to the station, I would definitely believe in him and never, ever doubt his existence again.

Ducktor Gas OfferEmil, you are right when you say that making your fuel last longer than it normally should is definitely a small thing for God to do, though it would be a miracle. You even raised your offer to God. Not only would you have worshiped him in church, you even would have believed in him and his existence for the rest of your life. And you stressed your sincerity in proposing this deal to God.

But, Emil, you are forgetting that God has already laid out the principles of having a relationship with him. There is plenty of evidence for his existence in the world around us (and again, I can’t be more specific here since this entry must come to an end somewhere). He has said in his word that anyone who comes to him in acknowledgement of their sinfulness, relying on Christ and his work alone for atonement, will become his child. It’s an astounding offer from God, and, if we can understand it at all, then only as an expression of his love and grace. But you don’t seem to take God’s offer seriously. You counter his invitation to salvation by proposing that you will deign to believe in him in exchange for a tank of gas. Can you see how far off the mark you are? God has extended his invitation, which for your own reasons apparently doesn’t suit you. Instead you are trivializing him and your status as fallen creature by thinking that you can pass judgment on his existence if he fulfills an absurd wish of yours. I feel sad for you, but God is not going to give you a special deal on terms that you dictate to him.

But a mile from the station, the engine sputtered out, and so did my faith.

What faith, Emil? It doesn't appear that you had any faith in God. Maybe you were brought up under circumstances that stuck the label of “Christian” on you by default. Perhaps you were truly sincere in the test you proposed to God. However, in what you are saying I don’t see any evidence that you really understand what faith in God entails.

Please hear me out. It’s not unusual for Christians to go through times of doubt; in fact, I think that those periods are often opportunities for further growth. How one can find one’s way through such dark periods depends on the circumstances, particularly on an understanding of what caused the questioning to begin with. For all that I know, Emil, you may even be going through such a period yourself, and you’re covering up your much deeper concerns with that superficial challenge to God. But, it doesn't look that way, and I’m quite sure that the chances are very low that your doubts will be cleared up by giving God an ultimatum: either he will give you undeserved gasoline or you will not recognize his existence.

Emil, please study the Bible. Get weaned off the idea that you can come to God on your terms. Recognize your status as a fallen creature and the impossibility of your redemption by starting out by extending conditions to God. Become aware of the reality that the very same God, in comparison with whom you and I fall so short, is inviting you to become his child on the basis of your faith in the work of redemption done by Jesus Christ. You don’t have to think up ways of getting God’s attention; they're only going to exacerbate your alienation from him. Instead, just accept him by trusting him and relying on him, not on yourself. I can’t promise you free gas or other exemptions from real life, but I can tell you that God has promised us eternal life. There’s some educational value in learning about how you ran out of gas and God wouldn’t give you a miracle. But I must say that his offer eternal life is far too important to let it ride on such a small non-event.

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Friday, February 20th 2015

21:09

Relating to God, part 5b

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: ok

So much for things warming up a bit towards this weekend. If we should actually get above freezing, it’ll be just a smidgeon for a very short time tomorrow (Saturday). The forecast is for snow and a high of 33°F. I have a Dr.’s appointment for early tomorrow morning, and I hope that the slick stuff will wait until I’m home.

*****

The weirdest thing happened last night after I finished my set on StreetJelly.com. I was done at 9:59 pm, which only gave me a minute or so to turn off the switches, unplug the peripherals from the laptop, take the computer downstairs, and start watching “Elementary” on TV while filling out my list of cover songs. Since it had been Bob Dylan night, I also needed to extricate myself from the harmonica holder, a process that requires the temporary removal of my glasses. So, I quickly undertook the necessary procedures, reached for my glasses on the desktop where I had set them down—and they weren’t there. With all the clutter and various cords, I couldn’t feel them, and none of the blurry patches that I could see added up to the overall impression of eye glasses.

Well, I unplugged the computer, grabbed a couple of other things, and descended the stairs to the (present) living room. Having deposited my load on a couch, I told June that I had to go back upstairs to the library and hunt for my glasses. And so I did. I looked as well as I could, crawled, groped, and explored, all without success. How could I lose my glasses within a mere fifteen seconds? Yes, I prayed without extending an ultimatum to God, if you’re looking for an application to our current theological discussion, but that’s not the point of this anecdote. I am mostly recording it in the spirit of uplifting literary entertainment and edification.

Half an hour later, I asked June to come up and please help me look, which she did gladly, but with equal lack of success. She finally concluded that the glasses couldn’t possibly be in that room, a sentiment with which I agreed in theory, but still resisted because it just didn’t square with the facts as I remembered them. I know I have memory lapses, but not to remember that I had actually left the room and placed the glasses somewhere else upstairs prior to depositing the harmonica holder on the library desk, would be beyond the possible. The very short time frame also ruled it out. So, the glasses must have totally vanished into nothingness, not a common occurrence, but, as Sherlock Holmes says, “When all the other alternatives have been eliminated, whatever remains, no matter how improbable it may be, must be the truth.” I would have to face the fact that we might have to rewrite some physical laws and metaphysical principles.

June went downstairs again to consider other options while I remained in the library to go through the same unsuccessful actions a fourth or fifth time hoping for a different outcome, a mark of the onset of insanity, I am told. Actually, I was not totally beside myself, but I was quite unhappy, and for the moment the entire focus of my life had converged into the single point of finding my glasses.  

June had barely made it back downstairs when she called up to me, “Found them!” I am tempted to write that I could hardly believe my ears, but that would be wanton hyperbole. Why would I not believe what my wife had told me? The glasses had been lying on the floor just a few feet from the staircase, and if there was a miracle, it was that neither of us had stepped on them and crushed them. Clearly, since I had prayed to find them, it was also an answer to my prayer, but again, that’s not my point (yet).

As I figure it, the glasses had become entangled in the laptop cords when I bunched them up to carry the computer downstairs, and they fell out once I had reached the bottom of the stairs. By that time “Elementary” was just about over. I filled out my sheet and then, to my surprise, realized that FSANF* Joel Jupp had just started a set of Christian songs on StreetJelly. I assume that other FSANF’s remember him. His program went over extremely well.

*****

Now, to return to the topic of our relationship to God. We had been looking at the statement by the fictional Emil to the effect that he no longer believed in God because God did not give him an instantaneous “miracle” when he asked for it.

In this entry I want to clarify the difference between miracles and magic. I find that in many disputes concerning the reality of miracles, the discussion is not really about miracles, but about whether Christians can perform magic which they just happen to call “prayer.” In that case the Christian is at a decided disadvantage because such a mix-up does not do justice to the nature of either a miracle or prayer. For purposes of this discussion a miracle is a direct action that God brings about in this world, according to his wisdom, sometimes using angels or human beings as his agents. (That’s not meant as a complete definition.) When God does a miracle, he neither breaks nor suspends the laws of nature, but, as their creator, his acts supersede them. Magic is something that human beings attempt to do. They may believe that if they meet the appropriate conditions, they can bring about changes in the world by manipulating spiritual forces. The conditions may include holding proper beliefs, being spiritually pure, undertaking the prescribed rituals, and directing yourself to the right spiritual entity or entities. For example, a Native American shaman may think that he knows the proper technique to drive the spirits that are causing an illness out of a person. Or, an American Christian may think that if he repeats the prayer recommended in a best-selling book on a regular basis, God will supply him with blessings that he would not receive otherwise. One may call it “prayer,” but the underlying concept is technically magic, viz. finding the best way to move God to grant your requests. If it doesn’t work out, it could be that you just haven’t fulfilled all of the conditions yet.

Now, my point right here is not to chastise the practice of what I’m calling magic under a biblical umbrella; I’ll do that again some day. My purpose is to call attention to the fact that the distinction between miracles and magic is often ignored. Patrick Nowell-Smith provided a good example of this mistake in an essay called “Miracles,” published in Hibbert Journal in 1950, and then reprinted in the famous, though no longer new, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. by Flew and MacIntyre, 1955, pp. 243-53. He addressed the question of whether miracles are phenomena that can correctly be ascribed to a supernatural realm, which differs from the natural on the basis of whether it can according to scientific procedures. To help clarify his point, let us return to the biblical miracle I mentioned last time, in which Elijah, an unnamed widow, and her sun survived many months on a small, but ever-renewing amount of flour and oil that normally would have sufficed for only one meal. The fact that the woman used these portions to make bread and that all three people ate it every day is an observation in the natural realm. But we have no natural explanation for what caused this event. All that appears to be available to us is to call it a “miracle” and place it into the realm of the supernatural.

But, asks Nowell-Smith, can there be such a thing as a supernatural explanation? His answer is a decisive “no.” His case can be summarized in this way:

1. So-called miracles belong either to the natural order or to a supernatural order.

2. If they belong to the natural order, they can be understood scientifically, in which case they can be used as explanations for unusual natural events, but then they do not carry much more significance than other natural phenomena.

3. If they belong to a supernatural realm, they cannot be understood scientifically, in which case they cannot be used as explanations for natural events, no matter how unusual.

Nowell-Smith establishes this dilemma after clarifying that a scientific explanation must conform to natural laws, and that these laws have certain indispensable features. He says,

If it is a law, it must (a) be based on evidence; (b) be of a general type ‘Under such and such conditions, so and so will happen’; (c) be capable of testing in experience. And if it conforms to this specification, how does it differ from natural law? The supernatural seems to dissolve on the one hand into the natural and on the other into the inexplicable.

Having prepared you, I’m sure you are now already one step ahead of what I’m about to say. Nowell-Smith turns the essence of a miracle into an act of magic. He claims that, in order to understand a miracle as a type of explanation it must be no different from physical explanations. First of all, we must have evidence for it. (Thereby, he has actually placed himself into a vicious circle because the fundamental question is what would serve as evidence for a miracle.) Then he insists that we would have to be able to name a set of conditions that are necessary and sufficient to produce a miracle. Finally, the fact that those conditions are, indeed, correct can only be established by repeated experiential testing. Thus, returning to my illustration, we should be able to emulate the conditions for Elijah’s miracle and come up with a never-ending supply of flour and oil, just as he did. If we cannot do so, calling that scenario a “miracle” is merely resorting to a phrase that has no explanatory value and provides no meaningful insights. I trust you can see that Nowell-Smith is asking for nothing less than a recipe for magic. Appropriating his own words, you do “such-and-such” and “so and so will happen.” That’s magic, and it is far removed from the free actions of a personal God.

Back when Nowell-Smith was writing this paper, for the most part atheists still wrote coherent essays that were carefully analyzing difficult topics. Today’s new atheists may simply challenge us to authenticate the reality of a miracle for them by producing one for their inspection. It comes down to the same thing: They want us to do magic; they are unwilling to bow to the sovereignty of God, who may supply a miracle as it suits his greater plan. Then, again, if they did, they wouldn’t be atheists. However, we can point out to them that what we mean by a miracle is a direct intervention by God that does not occur on any predictable or repeatable plan, and that they are, consequently, attacking a straw man.

But is it a straw man? How many of us Christians are searching for a way of making God bless us more, by which we mean to give us certain things, some of them trivial, many of them very serious. The emphasis in the above sentence is on “making God bless,” viz. forcing his hand or impressing him in some way so that he will provide us with what we might not have received apart from our prayer. We cannot manipulate God. We should definitely pray to him and lay all of our needs, wants, desires, wishes, hopes, fantasies, problems, and what-nots before him. He knows them all already, and will not be surprised. Furthermore, he already knows what is best and will guide matters along that line, sometimes answering our prayers directly, sometimes seemingly ignoring them because he knows a lot more than we do. The latter situation can often be extremely painful for us, and may only be bearable by unreserved faith in him, by which I mean faith in him as the infinite God, not faith that he will eventually come around to our blueprint. But if we think of prayer as “Jesus-magic,” by which I mean thinking that we can influence God to guide our lives according to our own finite lights, we are not only misunderstanding our relationship to God, but we become high risks for eventual spiritual breakdown.

My mind is just going on and on, but I need to stop here and carry on next time. I'll also provide some means of breaking up the monotony of pure text.

*Former Student And Now Friend

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